In this section, Sibbes explains the psychology of remaining in unrepentant sin. We will trust in the creature until the creature fails us:
They said so when they had smarted by Asshur, and by idolatry. Then ‘Asshur shall not save us,’ &c. They knew it by rule before; but till God plagued them, as he did oft by Asshur and by Egypt, when he broke the reed that it did not only not uphold them, but run into their hands, they made no such acknowledgment. [They had leaned upon Egypt as a walking stick. But when the stick broke, they stumbled and the stick went through their hand. Sibbes is alluding to Is. 36:6, “Behold, you are trusting in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff which will piece the hand of any man who leans on it.”]
Sibbes states his proposition,
Usually it is thus with man, he never repents till sin be embittered to him. He never alters his confidence till his trusts be taken away.
Notice that Sibbes attributes the ultimate failure and the timing of the failure to the providence of God:
When God overthrows the mould of his devices, or brings them upon his own head, setting him to reap the fruit of his own ways, embittering sinful courses to him, then he returns.
Next notice that God works this way, because merely telling us something does not work, we don’t take instruction well until we experience the truth. It reminds of Blake’s proverb of hell, the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom; we don’t know the truth of thing until we experience it:
Instruction without correction doth for the most part little good. When Asshur had dealt falsely with them, and idolatry would do them no good, then they begin to alter their judgment. What makes men, after too much confidence in their wit, when they have, by their plots and devices, gone beyond what they should do, and wrapped and entangled themselves in a net of their own weaving, as we say, alter their judgment? They are then become sick of their own devices. This makes the change.
Sibbes uses an interesting psychological explanation: our brain weaves a net; we have an irrational streak which keeps us from being able to change our course:
For till then the brain hath a kind of net to wrap our devices in.
So, many have nets in their brains, wherewith they entangle themselves and others with their idle devices; which, when they have done, and so woven the web of their own misery, then they begin to say, as the heathen saith when he was deceived, ‘O fool am I, I was never a wise man!’ Then they begin to say, I was a fool to trust such and such. I have tried such and such policies, and they have deceived me. I will now alter my course.
Sin is irrational. We can see this most easily when we look at another’s sin. Why would a successful musician destroy his life with drugs? Why would a famous politician destroy his life with adultery? Why would another gamble themselves into ruin? When we see these things from the outside, they are plainly madness. But inside, we weave a net which permits and perpetuates the madness.
What should we do this knowledge?
Use. Therefore make this use of it, not to be discouraged when God doth confound any carnal plot or policy of ours, as to think that God hates either a nation or a person when they have ill success in plots and projects which are not good.
By causing the creature to fail, by permitting our confidence to be shaken God intends to do us good:
Nay, it is a sign rather that God intends good, if they make a right use it. God intends conversion, to translate false confidence from the creature to himself, and to learn us to make God wise for us. It is a happy thing when in this world God will disappoint a man’s courses and counsels, and bring him to shame, rather than he should go on and thrive in an evil and carnal course, and so end his days.
Sibbes makes this point in another place by means of a brilliant image. (To “post” means to ride a quickly as possible. There is a new horse at every “post,” thus permitting the rider to travel at the maximum possible speed):
“If God should have let us alone to our own desires, we were posting to hell. It is the greatest misery in the world, next to hell itself, to be given up to our own desires. A man were better to be given up to the devil than to his own desires.”
Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 4 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson, 1863), 512.
Thus, conversely, to be permitted to profit without repentance is a sign that God has marked one for destruction,
There is no evidence at all which can be given of a reprobate, because there may be final repentance, repentance at the last. But this is one and as fearful a sign as may be, to thrive and go on in an evil course to the end. When God shall disappoint and bring a man to shame in that he prided in and built upon, it is a good sign.
The end is for us to “fix and pitch” our confidence upon God. This will be his next point.